Section 504 and Rights of Prisoners

Fact sheet

What is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)1 is a federal law that makes it unlawful for any program or activity that gets federal money to discriminate because of a person’s disability. The SC Department of Corrections (SCDC) is covered by this law.

Section 504 also states that a person with a disability, if qualified for a service or benefit should be given reasonable accommodations so he or she can get that service or benefit. However, if SCDC can show that making the change in procedures would impose an undue hardship on the prison, it does not have to give the accommodation.

Section 504 Definitions:

Person with a Disability2:

Any person who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment3 which substantially limits one or more major life activities,4
  • Has a record of such an impairment, or
  • Is regarded as having such impairment.

Qualified Person with a Disability:

A person with a disability who meets the basic eligibility requirements for a program or service. Before you have a right to ask for an accommodation because of your disability, you need to meet the general requirements for the program or service you want.5

Reasonable Accommodation:

A change that allows someone with a disability to fully participate in the program or activity. If you are in a training program, but have trouble reading because of poor eyesight, an accommodation might be getting you books with big print or having someone read the book to you.6

Undue Hardship:

This is determined on a case-by-case basis based on three factors:

  • The size of the program or activity including number of employees, type of facility, and size of budget;
  • The type of operation; and
  • The nature and cost of the accommodation needed.7

How does Section 504 protect a prisoner against disability discrimination?

Section 504 makes it unlawful to discriminate against inmates with disabilities. This includes inmates who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or other mobility devices. It also includes inmates who have mental health or cognitive disabilities. All parts of law enforcement and correctional services are covered by 504 including prison facilities, employment, transportation, and other activities, programs, and services.

Does Section 504 guarantee that I will receive health and mental health care?

  • Prisons must provide essential health and mental health services to all inmates. You have a constitutional right to necessary treatment.
  • This does not mean that you will receive non-essential health and mental health services (i.e. services that are not necessary).
  • This does not mean that you will automatically receive free health or mental health services in prison. You may have to pay for some service.
  • Please note that Medicaid, Medicare and the Veterans Administration do not pay for health or mental health services in prison.

What are examples of how Section 504 protects an inmate’s right to equal access to facilities, programs and services?

  • Use of prison showers and toilets, even if you use a wheelchair,
  • Protection from injuries if you have seizures and need a low bunk to avoid serious injury from a fall,
  • Sign Language interpreters for disciplinary or classification hearings,
  • Access to education and vocational programs that are at the prison,
  • Medical supplies and devices (wheel chairs, canes, etc.),
  • Access to dining halls, visiting and recreation areas, or library.

If I think I have been discriminated against because of my disability, what can I do?

As a prisoner, you have three choices:

  1. File an inmate grievance according to the inmate policies and procedures. There is usually a special form for this and you receive instructions when you are admitted to prison. SCDC has a grievance procedure: SCDC Policy GA-01.12, Inmate Grievance System. A copy of this policy is available in the Inmate Law Library at each institution. If you need help filing your grievance contact your Institutional Grievance Coordinator (IGC).
  2. File a complaint with the SCDC 504 coordinator. This is the SCDC employee who makes sure SCDC follows the 504 law. You may write a short note or letter to the 504 coordinator. The 504 coordinator must give you a prompt and fair answer to your complaint.
    SCDC Headquarters
    PO Box 21787
    Columbia, SC 29221-1787
  3. File a complaint with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).
    Office of Justice Programs
    Office for Civil Rights
    U.S. Department of Justice
    810 7th Street, NW
    Washington, DC 20531

The DOJ Complaint Form is available online.

Disability Rights South Carolina is the Protection and Advocacy System for South Carolina. This publication provides legal information but is not intended to be legal advice. As the law may change, please contact Disability Rights South Carolina for updates. Please let us know if you would like this information in an alternative format.

 This publication was made possible by funding, in part, by SAMHSA. These contents are solely the responsibility of the grantee and do not necessarily represent the official views of SAMHSA. 

Last updated: 2023

1 29 U.S.C Code § 794.
2 29 U.S.C. § 705(20); 10 C.F.R. § 4.101(a).
3 “Impairments” may include hearing and vision problems, mental illness, intellectual disability, and other disabilities. See 10 C.F.R. § 4.101(b)(1).

4 “Major Life Activities” may include (but are not limited to) seeing, hearing, working, walking, breathing, speaking, and learning. See 10 C.F.R. § 4.101(b)(2).
5 10 C.F.R. § 4.101(c)(2).
6 10 C.F.R. § 4.123.
7 “Undue Hardship” may result from accommodations that are excessively expensive, excessively time-consuming, or create security or safety risks in the prison. See 10 C.F.R. § 4.123(c).

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